Fixing problems in education is no easy task

  • Business
  • Saturday, 14 Dec 2013


NEWS this week that Malaysian students continue to perform poorly in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) when benchmarked against their peers from other countries is not new.

The sad truth is that Malaysian students are just better than those from Indonesia and worse off than students from other countries in South-East Asia who sat for the exams.

Fingers have been pointed and the blame game has started. Moves to rectify the problems affecting our low scores have began but the question is why did we allow this to happen in the first place and how long will it take to rectify the problem?

Furthermore, what will this mean towards our aspiration of becoming a developed nation (at least in monetary terms) by 2020?

The good thing from the PISA test is we are willing to benchmark ourselves. That should continue and the only way for us to know the education system is performing is to compare ourselves with others.

There was a story in The Star that anecdotally compared the questions students had to answer during the PISA test with what they are tested on in Malaysian tests. In essence, the report indicates that the PISA questions required us to think for the right answer instead of regurgitating one based from rote learning.

Although we performed poorly in answering the same questions other students had to answer, the thing is that thousands of students score straight As every year. That makes me wonder if the worth of an A today is really an A when compared internationally.

In trying to wrap my head around the state of education today, listening to parents complain that standards have dropped isn’t really news. Most people share that opinion and the problem really lies with the fact that the teachers who we train and hire to teach our students are letting us down.

According to the World Bank report on the economy and the education sector (, there are a lot of problems with Malaysia’s educators.

Firstly is the quality of teachers. It said that among applicants who want to be teachers in 2010, 93% did not meet the academic requirements.

“While Malaysian teachers are relatively well paid and competition for spots in education programmes appears keen, there is still need to encourage more high-quality graduates to the teaching profession,” it said.

With poor quality aspiring teachers applying and even graduating to teach our children, it’s not that they are swarmed with work once they become teachers. In fact, the report found that the ratio of students to teacher has dropped and it’s actually below the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average. It also found that a third of Malaysian primary schools have fewer than 150 students.

“Given the young age profile of teachers in the system, low-ability and low-skilled teachers currently in the system will stay in the system for decades,” says the World Bank.

It says efforts to retrain teachers and improve their skills will take a long time and a lot of money but there is little or no guarantee of success.

“Given the high combined cost of personal emoluments and in-service professional training, one option that MoE (Ministry of Education) may consider would be to reduce the “grace period” teachers are allowed for improving performance before they are redeployed,” the World Bank suggested.

The report goes on to highlight that teacher proficiency in English is poor. It also states that teachers in Malaysia are paid well. With so much money being spent on education (as Malaysia has one of the highest percentages of budgetary spending on education compared with a lot of other countries), it’s time that the money is put to better use.

As The Star columnist and Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs chief executive Wan Saiful Wan Jan said in his column this week, he found that among the bottom 40% of households according to income, 67% seem to rely on teachers doing the educating of their children.

“They are not even interested to communicate more regularly with their children’s teachers. Out of this, 87% say they trust that teachers know better about how to educate their children,” he wrote.

Well, if the teachers on average are not very good to start out with, then it will be a mistake to trust them to do all the educating. It’s time parents too have a voice in determining if a teacher gets to keep her or his job.

Correcting the flaws and problems in the education system is going to take a lot of money and a lot more political will. I am hopeful it can be done but I am not holding my breath.

If we don’t sort-out education, or make marked improvements at least, where students start to improve and have skills that they really should possess when compared with aspiring developing and developed countries, then becoming a developed nation isn’t just the issue. Sustaining it will be very difficult.

Gross national income (GNI) per capita increases have come by the way of salary increases and the consumption increases the country has seen. Paying civil servants fat salaries will inflate GNI, as so will the big increases in investments we have seen.

But for us to really become a developed nation, then we should also have a world-class education system and not languish towards the bottom of any ranking.

Imagine if we, academically, have below average students and are a developed nation. It will be almost an economic miracle but one that is not sustainable without big changes in demographics and migration.

If we produce students that on average will have no problem meeting the job requirements of industries and creating technologies that can enrich them and the country, only then can we hope that the generations of children in time will be able to savour the potential of the economy.

Business editor (Features) Jagdev Singh Sidhu wonders if we have dug too deep a hole when it comes to education.

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Business , education , economy , teachers


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